Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bracket Racket - Let The Madness Begin

Well, that wasn't the result that Illini Nation was expecting. After a valiant run in the Big Ten Tournament over the weekend at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the Illini found themselves on the outside looking in at the field of 65 as the brackets were unveiled on Sunday night. Still, this event is one of the highlights of my sports season, and not seeing Illinois pop up on the screen is, frankly, a little strange. Since Lou Henson departed as coach of the Illini, they have only missed the NCAA Tournament a total of 3 times in that span, and have not played in the NIT since 1996, which coincidentally was Henson's final game as coach of the Illini. Until this year. Since the Illini wasn't one of the 65 teams selected for the "Big Dance", they accepted a bid to play in the NIT, which is more commonly thought of as the little sister of the NCAA Tournament and may as well stand for such terms as "Not Invited Tournament" or "Not Interested Tournament". Whatever you wish to call it, the Illini are playing in it, and there is little anyone can do about it. Thanks to a scheduling conflict at the Assembly Hall (Circ du Soleil has the Hall booked for all of this week), the Illini have to hit the road in the first round, despite being given a #1 seed in the NIT.

So, where are they headed, you ask? To Stony Brook University (Wednesday, 8:00 pm ESPNU), which is on Long Island, New York (I had no idea where it was, so I had to look it up). This is the Seawolves' first ever post-season berth since becoming a Division 1 team 11 years ago, and the photo at the beginning of this blog shows the Pritchard Gymnasium, where the team has played their games while their other facility was being renovated. To say that this gym is small would be a gross understatement. Luckily, the venue that the game will be played in is about 5200 capacity, still a small crowd compared to what the Illini are used to playing in front of. The question I have about this is if the game is going to be held in a cracker box such as this, why couldn't the University use Huff Hall, which would have given the Illini a home game in the first round like is should be. According to Bruce Weber Huff isn't a legal court, so it couldn't be used. Not really sure that that means, or they could have moved the game to a neutral site closer to Champaign-Urbana so fans could actually attend the game and support the team. It is no secret that the Illini are disappointed to not be playing in the tournament with 4 letters, and to give them an assignment such as this in the first round tells me 1 of 2 things. They are either rewarding the Illini with a somewhat easy matchup, or penalizing them by putting them in the middle of nowhere and letting them travel sans fans to the contest. It is almost evident that a lot of fans won't bother to make the trip east, and the Illini fans fortunate enough to live near New York City will get the rare opportunity to see their team up close in a venue that may resemble a high school facility.

So, how did the Illini get themselves in this mess to begin with? Everything always seems to point back to the Las Vegas Invitational and the two games that were played in Sin City, which were both losses, and bad ones for the NCAA resume as a result. They knew it then, and those games kept showing up and looking worse as time went on. The Illini did have some quality wins throughout the season, with victories at Wisconsin, at Clemson, and at home against Vanderbilt and Michigan State. Couple those with another win over Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tourney and a double overtime loss to top-seeded and eventual tourney champ Ohio State in the semis, and the feeling was a little bit more relaxed. But, nobody saw what Minnesota was doing, and slowly, they knocked off Penn State on Thursday, Michigan State on Friday, and thoroughly embarrassed Purdue on Saturday to get to the championship game. This changed the view of things quite sharply and many thought that if it came down to Illinois and Minnesota, that Minnesota would get the nod. Well, in the end, that is exactly what happened. Minnesota's name was called on Selection Sunday, and the Illini's were not, and the snub has once again reared the 'Fire Weber' threads on message boards, which frankly, was expected.

If the Illini can get by the Seawolves, they would play their next two games at the Assembly Hall, but how many fans will actually show up to the games? Fans aren't excited about playing in the NIT, especially with the likes of North Carolina, Connecticut, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State in the field as well. The NIT bracket resembles a region or two of what would normally look like teams in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe the Big Dance should expand to 96 teams. That would probably make the NIT irrelevant, and we would not be having this discussion.

Regardless, enjoy the game and hope that the Illini can play another game in front of the home crowd.

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